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Gender Spectrum: A Scientist Explains Why Gender Isn’t Binary

Gender Spectrum: A Scientist Explains Why Gender Isn’t Binary

April 7, 2023 By Cade Hildreth 22 Comments (cadehildreth.com)

The gender spectrum is an understanding that gender is not binary, but rather a spectrum of biological, mental and emotional traits that exist along a continuum.

In contrast, the gender binary—also called gender binarism or genderism—is a belief that gender is composed of two distinct and opposite genders (women/men) in which there is not overlap.

Unfortunately for those who believe in a gender binary, it is not scientifically or medically correct. Gender can’t be binary, because it is a personal identity and is socially constructed.

Sex, which refers to one’s biological characteristics, also exists as a spectrum, because intersex people exist. A person’s sex can be female, male, or intersex—which can present as an infinite number of biological combinations.

Today, numerous scientific fields, including biology, endocrinology, physiology, genetics, neuroscience, and reproductive science, have confirmed that both sex and gender exist as a spectrum.

This is true for humans and across the animal kingdom.

Gender Spectrum vs. Sex Spectrum

When using the terms sex and gender, it is important to note that “sex” (female/male/intersex) describes biological traits. In contrast, “gender” is a broader term that reflects how a person lives within society. One’s gender identity could be woman, man, transgender, nonbinary, or an infinite number of other possibilities.

Because gender is a personal identity, is socially constructed, and has limitless possibilities, it takes no further explanation to explain why it is a spectrum.

Therefore, when people question the existence of a gender spectrumwhat they are usually questioning is the existence of a sex spectrum.

Sex (and Gender) are Bimodal, Not Binary

For all too long, the government, the medical system, and even our parents have assumed that sex is binary. Based on science, this is not biologically or medically accurate.

What is true is that sex characteristics tend to be bimodal, meaning there are clusters of characteristics that tend to be associated with people that we call “female” or “male.”

On average, males do have penises, and on average, females do have vaginas. This is what allows for reproduction. However, there are many examples where this is not the case, such as intersex people. External genitals (a biological marker of sex) present across a spectrum from full-size penis to small penis to micro-penis to clitoromegaly to enlarged clitoris to standard-sized clitoris.

On average, males tend to have XY chromosomes and females tend to have XX chromosomes. However, sex chromosomes come in a wide variety as well, with at least 16 different naturally occurring variations (see details below). This means that chromosomal presentation is not binary either.

On average, males tend to have more facial and body hair than females (a secondary sex characteristic), but there are also females with coarse and dense body hair and males who can’t grow a full beard.

On average, males tend to be taller than females, but there are most certainly females that are taller than some males. If skeletal structure (a biological marker of sex) was binary, then all males would have to be taller than all females, which of course, they are not.

As explained by these examples, sex is not binary, because people cannot be grouped into two separate, non-overlapping groups.

However, bimodal sex characteristics are not uncommon.

Bimodal means the presence of two (“bi”) statistical modes, which can be seen as peaks in a graph. The two modes represent probability clusters.

Sex and Gender Spectrum - Bimodal not binary

With regard to human sex, this means that for some sex characteristics, there may be common norms among people whom we tend to assign as “male” and “female.” However, there are also clearly overlaps present between the peaks. This is what makes sex bimodal, and not binary.

Finally, at risk of getting too mathematical, a bimodal distribution is by definition, a continuous probability distribution with two different modes.

In other words, biological sex is a spectrum that has clusters.

If sex is a spectrum, then gender is unquestionably a spectrum, because gender includes aspects of biological sex, interwoven with how a person lives within society and self identifies.

Why Genitals Do Not Determine Sex

With regard to assigning sex to people by their external genitalia, it is an inaccurate system at best. There are several reasons for this, as described below.

1) External Genitalia Are Diverse

In newborn humans, genitals are extremely diverse in size and shape. Until about week 7 to week 8 of pregnancy, all fetuses have what’s known as a “genital ridge.”

This genital ridge is the tissue that eventually becomes the sex organs.

At the time of birth, a newborn’s genitals are usually labeled by a physician as male or female, even if the newborn presents with sex organs or characteristics that are intersex, ambiguous, or undefined. In a few places, such as Ontario (Canada), 19 U.S. states, and Washington, DC, “nonbinary” or “gender unspecified” options now exist, but this is not yet the norm.

All sex organs come from the same genital ridge, with the testes in men being equivalent to labia and ovaries in women and the penis being equivalent to the clitoris.

This is why the penis and vagina do not exist as a binary, but rather, as a spectrum that includes the following:

  • Full-size penis
  • Small penis
  • Micro-penis
  • Clitoromegaly, also called a “Pseudopenis”
  • Enlarged clitoris
  • Standard-sized clitoris

2) Intersex People Exist

Intersex means that a person was born with variations in their sex characteristics, such as the biological markers described above. These can include: internal genitals, external genitals, gonads, chromosomes, gene expression, hormone levels, receptor sensitivity, and brain structure.

Current research estimates that intersex people compose 1.7% of the population, which makes being intersex about as common as having red hair.

However, this metric is understated for the following reasons:

  1. Most doctors, parents, or individuals don’t release this confidential medical information.
  2. There are subtle forms of sex variations that do not show up until later in life which go undocumented.
  3. Definitions of what intersex is have not reached consensus.
  4. There are at least 10 biologically relevant markers of sex (described below), and all but one (external genitals) are not routinely assessed.

The following examples explain this lack of consensus:

  • How small does a penis have to be before it counts as intersex?
  • Do you count sex chromosome variations if there’s no external sexual ambiguity?
  • Do unusually high or low sex hormone levels (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone) make someone intersex?
  • If so, how high or low must these hormones levels be and where is the “cut-off?” (The Olympic Committee has struggled mightily with this question.)
  • How do you classify someone whose secondary sex characteristics (body hair, facial hair, or muscle mass, for example) don’t match their genitals?

As these questions illuminate, sex may present as a spectrum for people who have not been classified as intersex, as well as those who have.

Continue reading Gender Spectrum: A Scientist Explains Why Gender Isn’t Binary

Night and Day

Night and Day
The master asked his disciples: “How do we know when the night is over and the day has arrived?” The disciples pondered the master’s question. 

One answered: “Master, night is over and day arrives when you can see a house in the distance and determine if that’s your house or the house of your neighbor.”

Another disciple responded: “Night is over and day arrives when you can see an animal in the field and determine if it belongs to you or to your neighbor.”

A third disciple offered: “Night is over and day has arrived when you can see a flower in the garden and distinguish its color.”

“No, no, no,” thundered the master. “Why must you see only in separations, only in distinctions, only in disjunctions? No. Night is over and day arrives when you look into the face of the person beside you and you can see that she is your sister, he is your brother. That you belong to each other. That you are one. Then, and only then, will you know that night has ended and day has arrived.”

Unknown Author